August 24, 2023 – Roger W. Lowther
Welcome to the Art, Life, Faith Podcast. I’m your host, Roger Lowther. This is the show where we bring conversations and stories we’ve been having here in Japan and report them back to you, the listener, so that you too can join in the conversation from a distance. This is a chance for you to see and hear a little of what God is doing here in Japan.
Well, leading into this summer, 2023, we’ve been flooding our hopes and dreams and plans with prayer. We were praying for two things. One, for God to open hearts to be willing to meet in community again after a long period of isolation in COVID-19. Two, for God to use the energy and enthusiasm of five interns who were planning to come and join our team this summer from the US to spread the gospel. We’ve seen both happen. Man, we’ve seen both happen in spades.
In order to tell you one of these stories, I need to jump back a few years. From early on in the life of Grace City Church Tokyo, the church that we’ve helped start in 2010, we’ve had a gospel choir. The choir, made up of Japanese people, was a way to gather people and build relationships. Through it, we had a chance to give not only a taste of Christian community, but to really look in-depth at the gospel every week through words that were being sung. The lyrics were, of course, themes and scripture taken directly from the Bible. It also filled a felt need that Japanese people love to sing. Then in 2011, we had a terrible earthquake. This choir played an important role in bringing hope and healing to people in the disaster area during a very dark time.
One of the men in this choir, who for the sake of this podcast I’ll call Suzuki-san, supported the relief work and ended up joining the choir. Over the years, this choir continued, and he sang not only in various places around the city, but also in worship services at our church. Through those experiences, Suzuki-san and his family experienced Christian worship for the first time, and they continued to experience Christian worship for many years to come. Moving the story along, Suzuki-san has a daughter. For the sake of this podcast, I’ll call her Miki-san. Now, Miki-san is a dancer. One Friday evening at our Art Life Faith event, one of our summer interns, Gardner, danced. Another intern, Faith, played the piano and accompanied her. Man, it was a great event. I really wish you all could have been there, but especially to join in the extended fellowship time that we had afterward. We were able to connect in really deep ways with the people who came. Well, it was at that event that Gardner, Faith, and Miki met for the first time. And they hit it off immediately. They’re all the same age, they’re all same year in college, and they’re all artists.
Over the days and weeks ahead, their relationship only continued to grow. And so did Miki-san’s relationship with God. That following week, she came to worship and watched as Gardner danced for the offertory and Faith played on the keyboard. It was a great rendition of Mary, Jesus’s mother, responding to the call of God. Miki-san was moved to tears because she felt that very same pull in her own life. Afterwards, she told Gardner, “Every time I’m around Christians, I feel God calling me. Every time I read the Bible, I feel God pulling me toward him.”
Well, during that following week, Miki-san was studying the Bible with the interns and prayed with them. Then God led her one step further. She said she wanted to be washed with that “Christian water.” She wanted to be baptized. And that following Sunday, she met with the pastor and an elder to share why she wanted to be baptized. She shared how God had been slowly working in her life, in her heart for all these years, ever since she started coming to worship services to hear her father sing in the choir.
My wife, Abi, asked Miki-san’s mother how she felt about the baptism, and she responded, “Iin ja nai,” which means, “Sure, why not?” She was happy for her daughter, for the joy and community she had found. She also said she was happy that her daughter was free to make this decision, that she wasn’t bound by the usual Japanese traditions to care for the family altar.
I had dinner with Miki-sans’ father just a few days later to make sure things were okay. I definitely didn’t want to do anything that hurt our relationship or caused a rift in the family. He made it clear that although he wasn’t interested in himself becoming a Christian, and that he thought the idea of baptism was way too exclusive, but that he supported his daughter. If this is what she wanted, he was okay with it.
So Miki-san joined the baptism class, and a couple of months later, just this past month, she was baptized. The service was pretty exciting. In fact, this whole story to me is really exciting. I mean, don’t you see the difference that prayer makes? God responded in ways so far beyond what we asked or hoped for.
There’s another piece to the story that I’d like to share with you as well. This whole summer, a symbol of prayer had been following us to all of our events. Our Japanese intern, Mayuko Shono, designed a collaborative arts project for a church that was inviting me to come speak in their global missions conference. She instructed the people to tear pieces of origami paper representing brokenness and prayerfully lay each one down to make three very colorful panels of Mt. Fuji and Jesus carrying the cross up that mountain. Hundreds participated in the work. Then the panels were displayed in the lobby for many weeks to encourage people to continue to pray. But it was still not finished. Then when the panels were sent to Japan, we symbolically built on this visible foundation of prayer. We ripped pieces of pink origami paper and glued them on what seemed to be a dead cherry tree. Through person after person, event after event, the tree blossomed and bloomed and grew as a visual reminder of the fruit of prayer. We plan to continue to display these panels this fall and add birds representing life and freedom and abundance. On each of the pieces of paper, people wrote short messages, notes of encouragement, short prayers, and words of scripture. It’s a living piece of art that continues to grow and expand with the participation of each new person.
People ask me all the time, “What is the role of the arts in missions?” Well, I hope that through this one story, you get a brief glimpse of an answer. Gospel music, dance, an art collaborative piece, all these things helped to bring one young woman to faith and spread the gospel to many, many more.
For the rest of this episode, I’d like to share with you a conversation I had at one of these events where the interns were performing. I sat down with Christopher, an artist who lives in Berlin. He happened to be in Japan for the day to lead a multi-day workshop at Gallery nani, an art gallery in Nagoya run by our teammates, Peter and Diane Bakelaar. Here is our conversation:
We are sitting here live in Tokyo at the IQ Cafe in this really chic space, overlooking a busy intersection in Shibuya, one of the coolest parts of Tokyo. And tonight we had a performance of a dancer and a pianist, and they shared their testimony to an audience that is mostly non-Christian. There’re Christians in the audience, but there’re a lot of non-Christians as well. And they’re currently in the other room still talking and discussing various questions that have been prepared for them. I’m sitting here with Christopher, who is visiting from Berlin. I thought we’d talk first a little bit about this event.
It was a cool event, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it really had energy to it, I would say.
Yeah, it did, didn’t it? People were really drawn into what was going on. It wasn’t a large space, but I guess there was like, I don’t know, 100 people maybe? And we were all sitting around tables about six or seven per table. And now people are talking and building community around those tables. And art just brought down a lot of walls. A lot of the people didn’t know each other before this event. So this is just one more example of how arts can bring people together. But I don’t know, what did you think about the performance itself?
I thought it was, again, an example of…oftentimes you think some type of event of this nature, of a performance with a piano player as well as a dancer, that they need these large spaces, that it really needs to be at a certain level in order for it to impact people. And as you described, Roger, it was really an intimate space. And I think oftentimes having those intimate spaces actually create opportunities for relationship, for connection, because there’s not that much distance between stage and audience. They all actually become one. And I was able to see that with the dancer, right there interacting with the audience, and the audience was able to feel that they were connecting with the dancer, which actually enables opportunity for community with one another.
Definitely. It felt like that. It was not just watching a performance, but it was like we were all engaged with them.
It’s something where you cannot not engage with it because it’s so much in your face and not in a way that is threatening, but in a way that is actually intimate and inviting.
My eyes kept getting distracted, too, by the wall of windows behind them, just looking out and seeing the train that kept going by on the Yamanote Line, which goes all around downtown Tokyo, and all the people walking out on the intersection. I was just like, “This is so cool that we’re here and we’re talking about Christ in this environment, downtown Tokyo.” This isn’t a church space, really. We’re in this tall building used as an office during the week. That struck me. We didn’t have to separate out Christianity or our faith from the city or from the workplace or something like that. But this is happening right here in this community building.
That’s why we have so many different spaces is this dichotomy. This is the place I go for church. And this is the place that I go to hang out with my friends. And this is the space that I might go for some artistic event or some cultural event. But I really believe that we’re made to be holistic humans. We’re wearing all these different hats, and we’re going to all these different spaces. And at the same time, we’re like, “Why can’t it all be brought together? Why can’t it all be holistic the way that it was made to be?”
It’s beautiful seeing that.
That’s a really good segue into who you are. The listening audience is probably curious about that. So you live in Berlin?
What do you do there?
I’ve been in Berlin for almost 18 years now, and we run a cultural center. And the idea of the cultural center is to bring together the business and the art as well as the social sector into one place. And it’s important to be able to see culture holistically. And it actually relates to my story as far as where it even or why it came to be.
Practically what does that look like…business and art and social sector?
Well, for me it’s the aspect of that holistic living that you were talking about. I always struggle to figure out, well, where do I belong in culture? There’s an artistic side where I really enjoy going to museums. I did some drawing classes. But on the other side, I have a degree in psychology and sociology and communication and worked as a social worker. And so I have a passion for social work and things that are going on there, but have a job just like anyone else and work for a living. And I’m involved in the business world and always felt like I had to choose. And everyone wanted to be a different person in those different places. But realizing that as I allowed one of those sides to die, either my creative artistic side or my heart for people and for caring and for society, I felt that I was more pleasing others than I was actually being able to live where I was. And so as I told my story to other people, realized that a lot of people were feeling that way. And so the question was, then what does it mean? And what does it look like to create a space where you don’t have to choose who I’m supposed to be in a particular place, that I can actually be in a space where I can be creative and at the same time, I can do my job.
At the same time, I can be having an evening discussion looking at breast cancer because I have a friend that is struggling with it and have an exhibit in our gallery. So right now is a great example as far as how that comes together. We just had an opening in our gallery this past Friday, and in the gallery, it’s looking at breast cancer awareness. And there we invited an artist from Austria and a dancer from Morocco whom the photographer photographed. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29, and it had a huge impact on her. The photographer wanted to photograph because of the dance that she does. She’s a professional dancer. In the end, there’s an exhibit of this photographer’s work, photography, black and white, of this woman doing dance, but at the same time addressing the topic of breast cancer.
Now, it just doesn’t end there. It’s actually taking place in this space in which people from our shared office space who actually rent desks and offices are able to come to. They’re able to encounter artwork that’s absolutely beautiful photography. In the evening of the opening, we also had a dance performance that normally they wouldn’t go, particularly to a gallery, but since it’s in the same space, they’re able to encounter art.
That simultaneously is discussing a social topic that so many people are affected by in regards to breast cancer. And so there’s these professional people that have businesses that are involved in that that are able to experience the beauty of art and photography without leaving the space with people who come in from the neighborhood, who are interested in artistic and creative things. And at the same time, those who are interested in social topics who might be struggling themselves with breast cancer come to the exhibit. So it’s bringing people together that normally wouldn’t interact and engage with one another, but they all have a passion and an interest or some type of connection to what’s going on. And so we need to be thinking holistically. How do we reach or how do we connect or how do we engage with one particular audience? How are we thinking holistically of what connects our hearts? And it’s our stories that connect us. And how do we create the place for those stories to be able to be shared as well as to be able to be heard?
Yeah, that’s really important, to create that space so those discussions can take place and bring those people together.
Now, I want to ask you, why are you in Japan today? What are you doing here?
What am I doing here? It’s a good question. Yeah, four years ago, I was able to speak at a conference and it was a great opportunity for me to connect with the Japanese culture as well as Community Arts Tokyo and meet some people and build relationships. And I had a whole new perspective and experience from being able to be here. And part of my heart just grew in love with the city of Tokyo as well as the people that are here.
Yeah, I should add, Christopher came and he spoke in one of our conferences a number of years ago, and it was a great hit. And after that led a discussion with a lot of people and then made friendships through that. In fact, we even had dinner with one of them last night.
Yeah, it was amazing reconnecting with them.
Years later, you still have kept those relationships going.
And today…someone actually moved to Berlin after the conference and worked at our cultural center for a year and a half of volunteering. And he moved back to Tokyo and I was able to have lunch with him yesterday as well. So it’s amazing as far as that importance of creating that space that the conference did and to be able to connect with one another. And so, I’m now headed down to Nagoya. Starting on Saturday, I’m leading a workshop that’s looking at the restoration of shalom. It’s our longing for beauty, our longing for community, and our longing for identity. And it’s unpacking what is that longing for beauty. What does it really mean? And beauty is not just art. I like to break down beauty into three different aspects. You have created beauty, which means in regards to artwork. It could be a table. It could be an Excel sheet, actually. My wife does finances, and she thinks Excel sheets are the most beautiful things that ever were created. Iit also is creation.
Not when I make them!
Yeah, exactly, but also creation in regards to nature. But there also is the third type of beauty, which I define as the way that we love one another. There’s a moral and ethical beauty that actually brings us hope. But then our belonging for identity that we all want to be known. But where does our identity come from? How do we live our identity out? Our identity is not found in the roles that are given to us, but the roles that we have actually enable us to live out the identity that’s given to us. And lastly, the aspect of community.
Yeah, so you’re going down to Nagoya. Peter and Diane Bakelaar run Gallery nani, where you’re doing this event. And the community is totally behind everything that they’re doing down there. They’ve made thousands of relationships with the community. They’re so trusted there and want to keep encouraging these kinds of discussions that you’re talking about.
So tell me more, though. What does that look like in terms of… I don’t know. This is a multi-day thing, right? What is the take-away that you’re hoping for after this?
One of the expressions I use is that personal renewal leads to cultural renewal. We need to focus on cultural renewal. We need to go out there and seek all things new. But the reality is, do we have an understanding of what these things mean to ourselves? And so the workshop is actually a series of roundtable discussions in regards to beauty or what does it mean to engage. One thing you brought up tonight was in regards to collaboration as well. What does collaboration even mean? Oftentimes in Christian circles we talk about commission. What is commission? It’s helping us to have a better understanding of what are these things that we’re called to and not just in a language that we might read in theological terms or language that we might use in biblical terms. But really, what does it mean for me to understand this? Not in the sense of my head, because we have a lot of head knowledge, but head knowledge is not actually what changes culture. Head knowledge is not actually even what changes us.
We get frustrated all the time when we get in a difficult or challenging situation. We’re like, I know what I’m supposed to believe. I know what I’m supposed to do. But the reality is, we wrestle because we’re still disappointed that’s not happening. The point of these workshops is, what does it mean to take this information from our head and actually to have it trickle down to our heart, that our hearts are renewed, that I have a renewal, and what beauty means to me in the way that I see it, that I have renewal in my heart, not just as far as what I’m told what my identity is in Christ. We can use these words and throw them around in stories that we share. But what does that mean to me personally and not just in words? And lastly, we talk about the importance of community, but do we really recognize as far as the sacrifice that community has, but the importance and the role that it plays in our lives?
So basically helping people see what it looks like to live it out, right? Rather than just talking about the concepts.
And also to do it holistically. There can be roundtable discussions that do in some ways involve your head, but it’s involving the head, heart, and hands in the sense of allowing a place for personal connection, for our heart stories to come out and not just head knowledge to come out. And then secondly, it’s actually going and actually doing practical hands-on things in the city of Nagoya and Seto and going to observe things. We’ll be going to some art galleries, but at the same time, we’ll be involving and engaging in social work projects and not just talking about it, but here we’re going to help out in a social work project in Nagoya when we’re talking about community and the importance that it is to serve.
Yeah, that’s awesome. And I know, watching you teach in the past, you have a real heart for connecting with people. That’s really what it’s about. And you’re telling me how you would work through what you’re going to say, but now that you’ve done it 100 times, you can really pour into the people and what are they needing, what are they thinking, and build those relationships between people.
And that’s why I’ve done these workshops hundreds of times now. And I still love giving them because it’s always new people and it’s new stories. And one of the aspects is that how much I grow, it can be selfish. It’s like every time that I leave the workshop, I grow as a person because I hear a new story. I understand beauty in new ways. Actually, I love that oftentimes in our culture, we say that, “Oh, I need time by myself in order to discover more who I am.” I’ve discovered more who I am through being in community and hearing other people’s stories and seeing other people’s brokenness in my own brokenness. There’s beauty that comes through that. And so it’s really how do we continue to create those spaces for that to occur.
I think that’s an especially important message here in Japan. We’re still trying to crawl out of this hole of COVID and people are like, “Oh, you know what? Maybe we just don’t need community anymore. We can just meet online once in a while, send some messages to people, but we don’t need to be gathering.” But you just can’t get any of the things that you’re talking about. Or like tonight, the intimacy that we felt, the power of that, it can’t be done online. You have to be there in person.
How many of these people quite possibly got invited through someone else and were able to experience this beautiful performance who might not ever go to performance? And they might actually then learn, “Wait, I never thought that I enjoyed classical dance. And now I’m learning something new about myself.” Then they’re actually being exposed to a greater beauty that they didn’t even know. And so they’re understanding more the fullness of beauty and that all beauty actually reflects God.
Yeah, definitely. I think we better end there so we can go back out and talk to more people. But thank you, Christopher.
Hey, no problem. Thanks so much for having me. Take care.
This is Roger Lowther, and you’ve been listening to the Art Life Faith podcast. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”
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